A Little Culture Shock…The Day a Taipei Starbucks Saved my Sanity

*Last updated:

Hugging the ice-cold bubble tea to my chest I continued wandering up and down the streets, looking for any sense of normalcy. The bubble tea lady was so smiley and friendly just moments ago…but she didn’t speak a lick of English. And I was confused.


As I walked among the tall city buildings I passed surprisingly few other people. I kept a clear mental map in my head of where I was in relation to the huge main bus and metro terminal just two blocks to the right and one street behind me.

Streets of Taipei

I can just go back to the airport…there’s no shame in going back to the airport…it’s only a 15 hour layover…

What else can I do? I don’t know where I am. The metro is confusing. No one speaks English. NO ONE. What was I thinking?! Landing here without even a map.

Crap. Crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap crap.

Anxiety had set in and I could feel little pieces of fear bubbling up to the surface.

I was hungry and so very, very tired.

And alone.

And a little scared even though I wasn’t in danger, which made me all the more confused.

I hadn’t spoken English to someone who comprehended it in hours.

Foreign words on the streets of Taipei, Taiwan

I couldn’t even see a café or restaurant. Just a bizarrely commercial area with all of the shop fronts still locked up tightly closed; the lettering on the windows a bizarre pattern of incomprehensible lines and squiggles.

I was too overwhelmed to even start the pity tears, instead continuing my confused and aimless wandering.

Until I saw it.

Shining like a beacon of recognition I gave no thought to ditching my bubble tea in a nearby trashcan as I all but fell over my own feet in my haste to suck in a hasty breath of the rich and warm aroma of roasting coffee that hits you the moment you pull open the door to a Starbucks anywhere in the world. The décor and interior looked like a standard issue Starbucks and the ringing greeting of a “Hello, how are you?” nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Oh thank god, I thought. Thank god, thank god, thank god.

Earlier that morning coming off a flight from Bali

I floated through Taipei customs without a hitch – I had a ticket out of there in a mere 15 hours time so the customs agent had no issue stamping me into Taiwan with a temporary entry visa.

It was 6:15am and eerily silent in the airport. At a stretch, I’d say five other people were wandering through the baggage claim area of the airport with me. Clutched in my fist was a ragged strip of paper with my scribbled instructions to myself – take the bus to the main train station terminal in the center of Taipei and from there all of the major sites were easily accessible by metro.

Easy-peasy, I thought to myself.

Bubble tea from friendly Taiwanese

First task in any new country? Money. Thankfully ATMs look pretty similar anywhere you go so I made a wild guess on the exchange rate since the deluge of rain pouring down from the sky in Bali the previous night took out the power and thus my internet researching skills.

The bus ticketing window was blessedly easy to find and the signage was in English so I pointed to the ticket I wanted then proffered my fist full of money, letting the woman take the coins she needed to pay my fare.

An hour later we were driving through the tall city buildings of Taipei when the bus driver pointed at me and then pointed at the door…not a word spoken, but clearly my cue to get off.

The sprawling building in front of me was a maze of business people rushing in and out of the metro terminal. I took a moment to drink in the huge TV screens filled with incomprehensible information… and no information stand in sight. Overwhelmed I turned quickly and headed into the city in search of food, wandering the streets until I found a friendly face sticking out from a window in the side of a building – surrounding her were photos of dozens of different tea combinations.

Culture Shock in Taipei

I pointed to something simple and again offered a handful of change – a few coins taken from my palm and in exchange I had a cold bubble tea in clenched between my fingers; a handy prop for myself as I continued the search for food.

Twenty minutes later, tucked in the corner of the Starbucks

The coffee and blueberry muffin – such a painfully western breakfast –calmed me immensely as I pondered my options. The food began to hit my system and the panic subsided…even seemed foolish.

I whipped out my laptop and found a wifi connection; between the ability to now scour the internet for information (and gmail chat with my dad) and the English speaking Starbucks barrista, I was feeling a lot more confident (do you think they have to speak some English to get hired at Starbucks?).

And it hit me right then that I had just experienced a lovely little punch in the face of culture shock. Coupled with low blood sugar, the completely overwhelming new culture had me in a state of absolute and debilitating confusion.

But food and familiar comforts brought me back to a state of sanity – instead of wanting to hightail it back to the airport I wrote down the metro stops for the three tasks my Taiwanese friend had recommended: Taipei 101, The Palace Museum, and the night market.

All things I should have done before I landed in Taipei for a 15 hour layover. Normally when I land in a new major city I have plotted out transportation from the airport and my first night’s accommodation. But without a guesthouse and a home base I had literally landed in Taipei with no more than instructions to get into the city and the name of three activities/sights.

In some places that would have worked; but not Taipei. I had arrogantly assumed I would simply locate an English speaker for directions…but what happens when there isn’t a single soul in sight who speaks a common language?

Once I wrote down the name of the stops and the color of the subway lines I needed I was back into familiar territory.

The culture shock was passing.

I had done all of this before.

A metro system is a metro system and Taipei’s is actually awesome once I was armed with more information.

I’ve been on the road for roughly two years now and didn’t see the culture shock coming. As a long-term traveler I ask my mind to constantly adapt rapidly to a lot of new situations –and as a solo traveler there’s an added element because there’s no one to help sort the information or watch my bags while I go investigate something, no one to communicate with just for the mere comfort of being understood.

This was my mind’s way of telling me: slow down, don’t get cocky, there’s no shame in advanced planning to smooth over the first days (hours) in an entirely new country…I don’t have to prove I’m superwoman by landing in a new country and magically knowing everything.

38 thoughts on “A Little Culture Shock…The Day a Taipei Starbucks Saved my Sanity”

  1. This makes my stomach flip with excitement and anxiety! In that circumstance, a Starbucks is exactly what you needed. We’ve written about the shame people try to give us for going to western outposts in foreign countries, but in all honesty, it’s exactly where you will find the locals.

    • So true! They like a Starbucks coffee and muffin too sometimes! I am all for local experiences, but there is no shame in taking in a variety of new experiences in all parts of the world. Glad you guys have found the same thing on your travels. :)

  2. Is Taipei really so different? I’m surprised. For me it’s not such a culture shock, but that may be because I’ve traveled to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong before and I can read and speak basic Mandarin. Interestingly I don’t like Starbucks. I always chose a local shop and try their own coffee.

    • For me the culture shock was a combination of being overly hungry, without a
      plan or map, and lost…that’s why when I saw a Starbucks it was comfortably
      familiar. Like you, I love independent coffee shops too, they have so much
      more character!

  3. i love this blog of your, searching for “places to go in taiwan” and saw this under the blogs section!

    This blog of yours is a winner! was reading it out loud with my boyfriend, and take note, i’m reading it with feelings :-)

    • Thanks for your kind words Darlene, and I am so happy to hear that you’ve
      found it useful! Thanks for stopping by and commenting, don’t hesitate to
      contact me if you have any questions (and I have a post coming next week
      about top 3 sites in Taipei that you might like :)

    • Both a funny and sad statement at the same time, though I was glad to see a
      Starbucks…world domination is…well…not so gladening! :)

  4. Funny, as I was in Tokyo a few months ago I thought about how Starbucks has become the McDonalds of the 1980s traveller. I know how grateful I was to see a McDonalds in Beijing in 1992 and how comforting the Starbucks in Shinjuku was in 2010.

    • That’s an awesome observation – the Starbucks is so ubiquitous in major
      cities that it’s the first thing I hunt down..though even to this day a
      McDonalds will do if I’m in search of a bathroom abroad! :) Thanks for
      stopping in and commenting Kristy!

    • I hear ya there…just the other day, I was home but having a bad day – ate
      a Florida orange (they’re in season now) and it just turned my day around
      with pleasant memories of childhood :-)

    • I hear ya there…just the other day, I was home but having a bad day – ate
      a Florida orange (they’re in season now) and it just turned my day around
      with pleasant memories of childhood :-)

  5. I really am starting to think I would have been the worst solo traveler to ever exist. I LOVE traveling but when I’m flustered and can barely think I have Shaun to calm me down. I would have been a basketcase in that situation!

    • Lol – I doubt the worst! It’s more like I know I was almost basketcase too,
      so I do everything I can to prevent that, since I’m solo – snacks in the
      bag…a book (so I can squat down somewhere and go into a happy place and
      calm down for 20 mins if I need to). It can be a whole lot easier with
      friends/bfs along though, that’s for sure :)

    • Lol – I doubt the worst! It’s more like I know I was almost basketcase too,
      so I do everything I can to prevent that, since I’m solo – snacks in the
      bag…a book (so I can squat down somewhere and go into a happy place and
      calm down for 20 mins if I need to). It can be a whole lot easier with
      friends/bfs along though, that’s for sure :)

  6. I think low blood sugar definitely exaggerates our panic if things aren’t falling together right away in a new place. There’s nothing like being able to sit down and grab something to eat and drink and calmly think and plan your next step. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if they speak English there and you can get free wifi. For all that we complain about the fact that Starbucks and McDonalds seem to have taken over the world, there are times when finding one can be very comforting.

    • The low blood sugar really hits me hard, so I try to be prepared with a
      snack, but sometimes you just can’t anticipate when trains, planes, and
      buses are going to make food impossible! Although I hate to seem American
      chains stomp out the little, local establishments in foreign cities, I
      definitely think there’s room for a couple here and there :)

      • Definitely agree that eating makes everything better. I’ve actually been to Taipei a number of times, and most people I’ve encountered understand english, though their ability to reply in english is probably less likely. I think all kids have to learn english in school, in fact. (Though it’s probably like all those Americans who “learn” another language in high school . . . ).

        • Very good point you make…I don’t know very many fellow Americans who still
          remember enough of their high school Spanish to actually communicate! Food
          is universal though so I was able to point and hand over cash pretty
          effectively! Thanks for stopping in and commenting :)

    • The low blood sugar really hits me hard, so I try to be prepared with a
      snack, but sometimes you just can’t anticipate when trains, planes, and
      buses are going to make food impossible! Although I hate to seem American
      chains stomp out the little, local establishments in foreign cities, I
      definitely think there’s room for a couple here and there :)

  7. sooo true! altho its subway that gets me every time. New capital city? straight onto google to see if i can get a footlong meatball marinara!

    • Oh yeah, although I’m more of a Starbucks fiend for my perfect cup o’ joe, I
      have sat in the refuge of a Subway on more than one occasion too! :)

  8. You can’t beat Starbuck’s when you are in Asia. For a traveller the promise of a clean toilet is something you can’t under estimate!

  9. Such a great post that I think we can ALL relate to. I know a lot of people have issues with Starbucks, but for me it’s the place that I most feel safe and at home in. I was just in BsAs for 2 weeks and I’ve been there 8X, but I still was having a moment and needed to just “escape,” so I told my gf to meet me at the local Starbucks. I felt SO much better after a venti latte. :)

    • As you can tell my views on Starbucks are a lot closer to yours! Esp on the road you can just count on Starbucks to be a piece of home – the same latte you love back home, but in some remote country instead. It’s like comfort food…I’m right there with ya and would have happily met you at one for a latte! :-)

  10. This totally happened to me! My first day alone in Shanghai, and I let myself get to that point where I was so hungry and so hot, and I couldn’t think straight, and I kept walking up to all of the vendors, and I was just so cranky… And then I saw Starbucks. An icy green tea something cooled and calmed me down enough to go have a real lunch. It was amazing. I’ll seriously never forget it! I have a close friend from Taiwan and have always wanted to go there. Loved this post!

    • There’s just something about the “comfort food” a Starbucks offers when you’re feeling overwhelmed – its like a little oasis of normalcy for a westerner! Like you I was able to hunt down normal food after my latte :-) Taipei was great – and the transport is awesome soooo easy to get around…which always makes visiting a city better!

  11. I’ve never been to Taipei but I have heard of similar stories from other travelers, particularly TESL teachers. Oddly enough when I’m overwhelmed I seem to need to find a place I can eat a sandwich – sandwiches somehow make things seem normal. Maybe my blog should have been called Sandwiches are Magic….

    • Lo! I like, it has a nice ring to it…perhaps now you have to co-blog…or have a sandwich food porn blog…images of sandwiches from rtw!!

      Ok, I may have gotten overly excited there ;-) I like the bacon title…even if I don’t eat it, I can admit it smells pretty nice frying up in a pan!

  12. Though minor in your Bali landing story, the piece that stuck out at me was your hop to the ATM.

    ATMs – the one thing in airports more standard than baggage carousels. Always a better rate than some “no-commission” exchange booth.

    You wrote you didn’t know about the exchange rate?

    Here’s a hint: ATMs usually offer a cash withdrawal range, right? Even if you have no clue about rates, the withdrawal range usually goes from an expensive cup of coffee to a month’s rent.
    So, instead of $5, $10, $20, $50, $100, $500, the foreign ATM’s range may be *100, *200, *400, *1000, *2000, *10.000.

    There – I’m comforted by guessing it’s roughly the same buying power.


    • The exchange booths are a joke! Good call on the amounts…I was just didn’t want to take out waaay too much because I was only there for 15 hours – $50 did it though and you’re right, it was about the middle choice in the row :-)

  13. Taiwan was the first non-English speaking country I visited and solo I might add, but for me too it was a layover (due to China Airlines’ fondness for stranding people as I’ve come to understand from hearing several people’s stories). While my exposure to Taiwan beyond the airport was orchestrated through a free tour from the airport, I found the whole experience totally amazing and I’ve since kept it on my list of places to visit (at least properly) especially for the Mid-Autumn festival and the natural wonders south of Taipei.

    I think there’s similarities in how foreigners perceive Taiwan, Japan & Korea as their societies all adhere to intricate social conduct. This, together with the language barrier makes the region very exciting to travel – at least for me. Its actually refreshing to experience a place and a society from a completely foreign perspective as it allows you to interact with people on the most basic levels and discover that most if not all the people you do encounter are incredibly friendly and helpful.

    However, for every place I visit I always carry the Wikitravel article and an offline map (CityMaps2Go is awesome for this) on my iPhone, even though I usually never look at them… I like to wander aimlessly: its the perfect way to explore. :P That being said, its incredible how fast can you adapt to new places & cultures when you’ve experienced so many others.

    • I tried and tried to find one of those free tours!! But they weren’t running that early in the morning I guess, which is why I decided to just go for it. Even though I saw three of the main things tourist see – Taipei is on my return list too :) Sadly I had drowned my iPhone the week before or like you, I try to go with a bit of information stored on it.

      Asia is one of my favorite regions of the world too because of the completely different culture…I look back on Taipei and compare it to, say New York, and what I love are the little similarities in the big cities even though they’re on opposite sides of the planet!

  14. I never realized how challenging Taipei could be to a visitor, though most of my visits have been with family. Only for a few days here and there was I on my own. I speak conversational Mandarin but don’t read and write. The challenges for me have luckily been minor. Maybe I have been oblovious to the lack of people who speak English? Btw, I too found the Metro to be really awesome. It’s fairly new and I think it has really improved the ease in which people can visit the city.

    Overall, what did you think of the sites you visited and your experience in Taipei? Do you think that you would go back and visit the city for a longer period of time?

    • I found that few people speak English outside of the touristy areas – which
      meant since I landed outside of the tourist attractions I had a hard time
      getting *to* them! But once at Taipei 101 it was a lot easier to get people
      to help me in English! The metro was amazingly on time, clean, and took me
      everywhere I needed. I would go back again for longer – I only got a tiny
      taste that day but it was a vibrant city and I enjoyed it once I wrapped my
      head around the differences. Even the people who didn’t speak English were
      incredibly friendly so it was an adventure :)

Leave a Comment